The Burning Ones,

  •  Elsi Sakellaridou, Professor Emeritus of Theatre Studies, AUTH

The Burning Ones. Through its very title, dramatic and prophetic at the same time, Kalaitzidou’s award-receiving play brings together the agony of humanity after the turn of the millennium, when terrorism, sociopolitical upheaval, new military action, crucial climate change, prolonged economic crisis and uncontrolled migration have caused new insurmountable problems that threaten the future of our world.

While carrying familiar images from recent Greek history (the civil war, the dictatorship and more recent social troubles), the play manages to go beyond its socio-historical specificity and to create a more global perspective which enters the sphere of dystopian myth. Whether evoking the poetic vision of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land or the post-Brechtian theatre of Edward Bond, Kalaitzidou’s text vibrates with warnings of doom on both the existential and the social level. The characters of the play have a double function: as human archetypes and as social stereotypes simultaneously. This fluidity helps them transcend their historical and cultural territory, which in the initial stage direction is defined as “some Greek town” but, in parallel, as “France around the end of the 18th century.” This second identity feature is especially reflected in the costumes and the make-up required for the actors.

This dual location orients the play towards the French cultural tradition, Genet in particular, since several characters (such as Madame, the Maid, the army officers, the priest) or thematic motifs (such as mirror-reflections of roles and situations) evoke similar elements in Genet’s work. However, the Anglophone tradition is also resonant in the text. Beyond the afore mentioned Eliot and Bond, some other elements in it (such as sexual aggression, the nightmare of war, physical violence and extreme cynicism in human relations) seem to have closer affinities with Sarah Kane’s more contemporary, atrocious landscapes. On the other hand, the sparse, often repetitive language and the circularity of thoughts and situations are once again reminiscent of the earlier generation of Anglophone dramatists – that of Beckett and also Pinter, the latter especially for his ambiguity and black humour.

Structured as a series of images and episodes, the text makes a totally free use of space and time. Its playful shifts of the here and now create a dreamlike fluidity, which permits the characters to replay themselves, mixing memory, fantasy and desire with utmost theatricality. This condition also prepares for additional theatrical strategies such as zoomorphism of certain characters (e. g. the soldier as a dog) or the animation of objects (e.g. the doll as a live girl). All these distinctive features endow the play with originality beyond any intertextual loans. Its identity is also inscribed with the playwright’s cultural preferences (e. g. the epigram serving as a preface to the play from Takis Sinopoulos’s poem “The Burning One”) or childhood memories (e. g. the self-immolation of an invisible character based on a real incident in the author’s home town).

Despite the dark, nightmarish atmosphere of both the title and the play itself, Kalaitzidou’s mythopoetic discourse concludes in somewhat more optimistic wordscapes, where cherry trees will come to life again in the barren land, more or less like the lilacs in Eliot’s landmark poem or like the surreal flowers pushing up in Kane’s devastated landscapes.

The structural firmness, the brooding, poetic glance and the verbal sparseness and flexibility of this play fully justify the literary prize it won of second best new play of 2010. Its persisting significance today is further proof of the continuing relevance of its topic and the merit of the writing itself.